Advanced imaging technologies uncover hidden details on Rubens paintings

Next in our British Science Week 2018 series, Historic Royal Palaces’ Senior Conservation Scientist Dr Constantina Vlachou-Mogire tells us about investigating the Rubens ceiling paintings at Banqueting House…

Historic Royal Palaces is preparing for the 400th anniversary of the Banqueting House, which will take place in 2022. During this major project we have a rare opportunity to access and study in detail the Rubens ceiling paintings, their fabrication technique and current condition.

The Banqueting House is the last surviving building of Whitehall Palace which was destroyed by fire in 1698 (Figure 1). Set within a decorative coffered ceiling designed by the building’s architect, Inigo Jones are nine paintings by Rubens, the artist’s largest and most accomplished works to remain in the context for which they were designed. The paintings were commissioned in about 1629 by Charles I as a testament to the glory of the Stuart monarchy through the depiction of his father James I’s life and achievements.

My beautiful picture
The Main Hall at Banqueting House

These internationally significant paintings are an integral component of the architecture of the hall. Originally the Banqueting House Rubens ceiling paintings were oil-on-canvas stretched on strainers, but since 1907, they were attached to plywood boards. During their long history the paintings have been restored nine times—including in 1940 when they were cut up to evacuate the gigantic panels from the building.

High-resolution multi-spectral imaging

Figure2_MultispectralImages_2018-03-12
Figure 2: Details of the multispectral gigapixel images of The Apotheosis of King James I panel (a. visible light, b. infrared reflected, c. ultraviolet-induced luminescence)

The first phase of our project involved capturing the condition of the paintings in high resolution images (Figure 2). The scale of the paintings, covering a total surface of 243 m2, and their position 17 m from the ground, made this task particularly challenging; however, recent advancements in digital photography helped us to overcome these difficulties.  Collaboration with imaging specialists developed the application of GigaPan technology to document all nine paintings from the ground in visible light and infrared light as panoramic ‘Gigapixel’ images. Ultraviolet-induced luminescence images were taken at close-range from a scaffold, by illuminating small sections of the painting and later stitching the images together to full-painting size. Superimposing the visible, infrared and ultraviolet images allows analysis and detailed classification of the current condition of the paintings as a standing record. This will underpin further investigations and inform the programme of conservation of these important paintings.

We would like to thank the following external collaborators for their expert insights and contributions to the successful progress of this cross disciplinary project: UV/IR imaging Dr Giovanni Verri (Courtauld Institute of Art) and Steven Paine (Paine & Stewart), 3D laser scanning, visible ‘Giga’ imaging John Hallett Jones (Glanville Consultants).

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